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Ships fitted with ‘cheat devices’ to divert poisonous pollution into sea (independent.co.uk)
394 points by appleflaxen on Sept 30, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 147 comments

Shipping is a pretty dirty industry, because of fuel quality they use and the general lack of oversight in the middle of the ocean.

I was on the board of Corvus Energy (http://corvusenergy.com) while working in Norway, whose technology reduces CO2, SOx, NOx, and fuel consumption by up to 30%. One installation was the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off of the road. Thankfully, there are developments in this space.

Bear in mind that shipping is also the most energy efficient form of bulk transportation (vs land or air).

Our house fills with low frequency vibrations and a dull humming when they pass by, and even at my office a further half mile inland I can gear and feel it over the loud office environment.

This is a big forgotten one. The sound of container ships as they go past on shipping lanes is colossal; if you're downwind you can hear them from 3/4 miles away quite well.

I can only imagine how much disruption this have on whales which rely on "singing" to communicate. Probably similar to living near an airport.

I've dived ~1 mile away from anchored cruise ships and it's jarring, and frankly, pretty scary how loud they are. I can only imagine how the whales feel.

They would like to plug their ears.

High sulfur diesel is super nasty, and the shipping industry has to clean up, but it's not obvious how.

I mean, let's say we forbid them from using high S diesel. What happens to this diesel then? Do we dump it in tailing ponds? pump it back into the ground? It's not obvious what to do with this. At least at sea S emissions are spread out minimizing impact (as opposed to localized)

I'm not saying not to do anything. I'm asking, what are we to do? (I have some ideas in mind, so it's not impossible)

> I mean, let's say we forbid them from using high S diesel. What happens to this diesel then?

It gets the sulfur refined out of it. It's not hard to do, just not quite as cheap as just burning it somewhere where no environmental regulations exists (or where they are not enforceable).

Elemental sulfur isn't all that nasty, it would be fine in a pile somewhere. The issue is dispersing it into ecosystems quickly. Kind of like fixed nitrogen, which like sulfur is a nutrient

You can see the great stacked blocks of it in Canada where it is removed from the tar sands oil… https://www.google.com/mymaps/viewer?mid=1Wi4KuLBYcXHH0dq4j4...

The oil is more valuable without the sulfur, but the market price of sulfur is low, so they just stack it up.

Don't most laws work like this:

"As of Date X, Y will be illegal." So refiners basically stop making high Sulphur diesel, but date X is far enough in the future that there's time to use it all up before the law takes effect.

Electric cars give away fuel that ships can now use. Of course there’s nowhere to put fuel which shops used to use

If it reduces fuel consumption by 30%, wouldn't all ships want to have it? Is it too expensive, or what is the problem?

In shipping the cost is transferred easily down the line; capital investment in new vessels and new technologies is pretty slim because of that.

Also the time spent in dry dock might as well cost you more than what you’ll gain through the service time of the vessel since many of these vessels change hands frequently sometimes even several times a year.

Also because how risk is managed in the shipping industry none of these companies is exposed to any actual action, the vessels would almost never be owned by an entity with actual assets and they would essentially be registered to shells holding only debt.

This is done to protect shipping companies from damages in case of accidents but it’s also very convenient to avoid any regulation since if they are caught there will be no legal entity to pay the fine.

Hm, really stupid naive question here. What happens if violating ships were basically seized

"Ship arrest" is a legal concept:


And no, I don't know much about it beyond the term and what's at the link above, but failure to abide by regulations is an allowable condition of arrest.

Well they don’t have a strong basis to seize the vessels, right of passage is tricky and the vessels don’t turn those on while in territorial waters.

Open systems have a sufficiently large capacity to store the contaminated water so they essentially only open the loop in international waters where no one can do anything about it.

But in general it depends on who does it, for the most part if it’s a western country the country would loose in court since it will he sued by multiple parties with interest in the cargo but no actual liability.

If it’s not then it’s either going to be a political waltz or just another act of piracy.

The ship and cargo are insured some parties might make more money on losing the ship than if it had completed its transit including quite possibly its operator.

>Open systems have a sufficiently large capacity to store the contaminated water so they essentially only open the loop in international waters where no one can do anything about it.

What about enacting a law that says "if you use cheating devices at all, you can't dock in our ports"?

>What about enacting a law that says "if you use cheating devices at all, you can't dock in our ports"?

When 99.9% of vessels are doing the cheating, the shipping companies would say you would really like your people to go on a diet don’t you?

You are making it harder than it is. You can't pump any oil overboard anywhere, well above about 1 ppm if I remember correctly. In the industry you hear all the time about magic pipes being found during port state control and other inspections leading to extremely high fines and prison time. For reference, a magic pipe bypasses the oil separator making you able to discharge anything.

Simply add another annex to MARPOL regarding discharge of sulfur and the industry will follow, penalties for breaking MARPOL are usually personal and not on the shipping company. Though, as always with the maritime industry the international manner makes any change slow.


MARPOL is utterly toothless and not enforced, and also only really covers 12 nautical miles from land.

12 nm is enough, as most inspections occur close to shore.

Cool.. let's enforce it.

That's not going to happen. For example London is basically setting cycling safety regs for lorries [1], or in the US, California is basically setting the emissions limits for vehicles.

All it takes is for the US/Europe/China to take a stand. No shipping company is going to ignore those markets.

[1] https://road.cc/content/news/142312-london-ban-hgvs-without-...

So give it a several year phase-in period, and provide mechanisms to remove/permanently disable the systems.

I feel like I’ve seen this basic plot line before, once or twice.

Ending 1: the deadline approaches and nothing has been done, so the deadline is extended, or additional clauses are written to grandfather in the non compliant offenders (who are of course too big to fail).

Ending 2: they find a port that is near the port they want to visit, in a jurisdiction that doesn’t care, and then ship the last mile to the actual destination via other means. More costly and more pollution but technically in compliance with every law.

Ending 3: they learn to game the tests, so they meet the letter of the regulation but not the spirit of it. Much cheaper than actually reducing emissions.

So countries need to pressure each other’s neighbors into agreements where all of them refuse business with ships that do not follow such regulations?

This was a good strategy, but the US used it up with its idiotic War on Drugs.

That’s what has been done in this case which lead to cheating devices to be installed in the first place.

It’s very hard to near impossible to do or enforce all it takes is a country just by you that is willing to accept them.

People aren’t going to take a huge price hike and countries that are dependent on imports won’t ever enforce such requirements which would leave these vessels out there.

At the end of the day unless you are willing to fund a fleet of 1000’s of new vessels and or pay to upgrade existing ones the shipping companies won’t budge and you won’t ever be able to push them into a corner since the economic fallout would be catastrophic for you but not much for them.

>It’s very hard to near impossible to do or enforce all it takes is a country just by you that is willing to accept them.

You can set up treaties with your neighbors to enforce the same regulations. Also, if your country is sufficiently large enough, it's not really a concern because any savings from not having to follow the regulations will be wiped out by the increased cost in transporting the goods across the border.

You could also impose a tariff/charge on goods that transit through a neighboring country for no apparent reason (eg. China -> Mexico -> LA rather than China -> LA).

>People aren’t going to take a huge price hike

Source on the huge price hike? According to http://www.worldshipping.org/benefits-of-liner-shipping/glob..., the shipping industry contributes 183.3B to global GDP, and transports more than 4T worth of goods. Based on that, shipping accounts for approximately 4.5% of the cost of goods. Therefore, a 50% increase in cost because of emissions controls (very generous estimate) would only cause a 2.2% increase in the price of goods.

>and countries that are dependent on imports won’t ever enforce such requirements which would leave these vessels out there.

If it's announced years in advance, either shipping companies would adapt and get the vessels ready before the regulations take effect, or local manufacturers come online now that they're more competitive. No ships is ever going to be "stuck".

I don't buy your defeatism at all. The US certainly has the economic clout to make progress, and there's certainly a middle ground between doing nothing and expecting that every attempt to regulate externalities must be 100% effective and 100% enforced on every economic actor. At some (usually reasonably achievable) point, compliance becomes cheaper, or substitution occurs.

Shipping to/from/through the waters of whosoever is doing the seizing is going to get a lot more expensive.

Or, you know, the shipping companies could address that risk by complying with the relevant regulations.

> In shipping the cost is transferred easily down the line;

Would there not be a competitive advantage in being able to offer a lower price than your competitors to these customers "down the line" or is there some facet of the pricing practices that I'm missing?

How does this ownership structure still survive today?

It's a free market. International treaties evolve slowly, so regulation is non-existent, and shipping is a race to the bottom industry.

Ships are flagged and "regulated" in Liberia, Panama or wherever, crews are Filipino or Indonesian, and the officers are from another country (Greece, UK, US, etc). The ownership is always murky and unknown.

The only exceptions are some intra-national shipping. US carriers are required if you're shipping from Alaska to California, for example.

Shipping is a very conservative industry and hesitant to new things.

Time to investment payback was longer than many companies were willing to stomach, which was shortened thanks to Norway subsidies.

That said, they’re growing quickly, have a look!

It might be worth finding more detail, preferably externally verified, than a vague "up to 30%" claim before judging it as a no-brainer.

Also from what I know of the shipping industry I would only expect it to be seen on new ships as the cost of retro-fitting would be high even without considering the opportunity cost of the ship needing to be in dry-dock for the operation (and needing to get to and from the dock, if there is not one where the work can be done along its owner's normal routes).

And given ships change hands surprisingly often, how long it takes to hit break even (i.e when the cost of the fuel saved, less any extra maintenance costs the tech may be subject to in that time, equals extra initial outlay) will have a massive effect on whether it is worth it to the initial owner of a new ship.

And a new ship is a huge capital expenditure, with a long lead time from plan to implementation. If the tech is relatively new it may not have existed at all when ships currently rolling into service were conceived, and with that level of capital involved designers are going to be pretty conservative about the risk of trying relatively new tech, so maybe it will become common but at a much later time.

More efficient than enormous, unmanned self-filling hydrogen dirigibles? They could operate in dedicated lanes away any from population centers...

> Shipping is a pretty dirty industry, because of fuel quality ...

You're not wrong, but no one else is/was using bunker fuel, so might as well burn it, as what else can it be used for? Can it be processed into anything more useful?

(The IMO 2020 mandate may help clean things up.)

> Bear in mind that shipping is also the most energy efficient form of bulk transportation (vs land or air).

I was under the impression that rail transport was. Is that not correct?

No, shipping is the most efficient.

Not only are drag loses comparatively small, those two stroke diesels are crazy efficient from a thermodynamic point of view (massive, slow, and high compression ratio -> crazy efficiency).

It's so efficient that barge transport is still preferred to rail where a navigable river is available.

It's efficient in the sense that if you compare kgs of goods per km, but it's not efficient when you consider the great distances ships travel versus producing goods domestically, just to put those same goods on rail and trucks anyway.

If you consider the efficiency of shipping finished goods versus shipping the raw material (and, possibly, labor) necessary to produce the goods domestically, how does that affect the comparison?

This statement seems to assume the same shipping of raw materials isn't taking place elsewhere.

Ore goes from the mine, to the forge, the raw steel goes to the manufacturer. That probably requires a bit of shipping, doesn't matter which country it takes place in.

> > Bear in mind that shipping is also the most energy efficient form of bulk transportation (vs land or air).

> I was under the impression that rail transport was. Is that not correct?

It may depend a lot on distance and modernity of rail tech, and also the availability of direct land routes.

If you want to read the other side's argument, here it is, from International Bunker Industry Association: https://ibia.net/facts-and-fears-in-the-open-loop-scrubber-d...

The main point is that there is regulation for washwater based on science. The article describes "warm, acidic, contaminated washwater containing carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals", but regulation in fact specifically includes standard for heavy metals, PAHs, and acidity. You should argue why acidity standard is wrong and what it should be, instead of repeating "acidic washwater".

I’d argue it should be zero. Ruining our oceans is something that cannot be undone, and there is far too much damage that has and is already occurring in acidifying our oceans and the amount of existing toxic materials.

This industry is one of the dirtiest, and least responsible to the world.

"I’d argue it should be zero."

So would I, but that's impossible in meat space for any industry or technology spawned in the last 200 years. I wouldn't mind technologically winding the clock back 200 years, using sail boats and letting my computer wither away (and livelihood, btw). Would you?

"This industry is one of the dirtiest, and least responsible to the world."

True. It's also, by weight and value of goods transported, one of the cleanest. It's a massive industry

Ships have the advantage of being able to dump waste in the middle of the ocean where there is little to no life (too deep, no light, no plants. There is some life). Compared to what other, land based, industries do this is comparatively benign. Here the waste gets diluted by an essentially infinite sink.

Infinite sink you scoff? Yes, depending on where and what you dump.

If you dump brine water off the coast near the Mississippi river, you're doing a lot of damage by significantly changing the salinity locally. Slowly dump the same brine in the middle of the ocean, and nothing will happen.

Similar for heavy metals. These dissolve into salt water, and were already present in solution since the dawn of time. We won't change those numbers significantly. (again, assuming you're not dumping it just off of land like the Japanese did in the 50s)

Plastic is a different ball game. Plastic doesn't dissolve and is carried, and concentrated by ocean currents. That's nasty.

Chemicals and isotopes that don't naturally exist are also nasty. Particularly if they have long half-lives.

> Ships have the advantage of being able to dump waste in the middle of the ocean where there is little to no life (too deep, no light, no plants. There is some life). Compared to what other, land based, industries do this is comparatively benign. Here the waste gets diluted by an essentially infinite sink.

There is life everywhere that there is a temperature gradient to exploit. Just because we haven't named it doesn't mean it isn't there. There's life in ices, life at the top of mountains, life in the deep ocean, and life in the shallow places. So I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

By the way, the same arguments you're making for dumping sulfurous water were also made for the introduction of PEG into our toothpastes, shampoos, body wash, lotions, and various other cleaners. It was only after the same plastics were discovered at all levels of our food chain that someone realized it was actually a bad idea to do this. So I'm skeptical of any argument for dumping based on the small quantity of dumped materials. Humans are really good at scaling up small actions into huge consequences. And now there's plastic microbeads in our oceans, lakes, streams, fish, birds, game animals--basically anything that eats anything has measurable quantities.

> Similar for heavy metals. These dissolve into salt water, and were already present in solution since the dawn of time. We won't change those numbers significantly. (again, assuming you're not dumping it just off of land like the Japanese did in the 50s)

This is not true. Due to biomagnification, there is already significant contamination of fish stocks with (methyl)mercury:


The linked article makes the following claim: "the buffering capacity of the world’s oceans can absorb the sulphates without causing harm". This is a factual claim and seems plausible to me. Why do you think it is false?

So why are so many countries banning it around their coastlines?

Also sulfates are just one aspect... the heavy metals and warm acidic water is another...

The waste water can be diluted till any standard is satisfied, but nevertheless same amount of acid and heavy metals ended up in the ocean and that is wrong.

> the sulphur emitted by the ships is simply re-routed from the exhaust and expelled into the water around the ships, which not only greatly increases the volume of pollutants being pumped into the sea, but also increases carbon dioxide emissions.

This should be a crime

Probably hard to do in international waters but the bigger countries could always just say that any vessel doing this is blacklisted from docking in their ports. Every ship operator would just retrofit their vessels if that were to occur.

Exactly. I was gonna say that by some international port blacklist we can easily punish them, and of force them to make a huuuuuge donation to a clean-up fund in order to have the ban lifted.

The US and China have already defined rules to prevent it.

According to the article, they've added rules that the ships can't discharge within their national waters. So the ships will discharge right outside that line. Nothing is prevented, only delayed.

Can we just start adding a piece to laws that says something like: "if you do something shifty to avoid this law, and we find out, it will be up to the court to decide if you were still breaking it"

I really hate the notion that laws are far more about the word than the intent.

This shifts much of the power from the legislature to the court. 'Something shifty' can be very broad.

Such standards exist. For example, consider the laws around "structuring" financial transactions to avoid reporting requirements. You can get as creative as you want, it's all illegal, the crime is attempting to avoid the regulation and if you try it they will absolutely fuck your shit up. It is one of the most stringently enforced financial crimes and if you try it the feds will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Never, never attempt to structure financial transactions.

One of the problems with legal discussions on this site is that we tend to apply programmer logic to legal problems like this and come up with loopholes. But ultimately the law is interpreted by humans. Judges deal with criminals who think they've found a clever loophole all day, every day.

>This should be a crime

I suspect that a desire to cater to people with "something drastic must be done" attitudes is how we wound up with half baked rules with seemingly obvious loopholes in the first place.

As another commenters pointed out, there are standards for discharge water and these systems presumably meet them. If you think those standards are wrong then take them up with them. The ship owners are acting in rational self interest within the letter of the law here. It's hard to find fault with that.

They are not acting in rational self interest with regard to the health of our planet, on which they too must live. I know — tragedy of the commons, etc, but it’s actually pretty easy for me to find fault with that.

How does the fact that they're acting in rational self-interest make it "hard to find fault"? "Rational self-interest" isn't a defense for bad behavior.

They were given two options within the law and they picked the cheap one. Expecting participants in a commoditized industry to voluntarily increase their overhead is naive at best. The issue here is with the people writing the rules.

There's two points here. From a practical standpoint, clearly the way to fix this problem is to fix the rules, and educate the people who make them to minimize future occurrences. Expecting everyone to act for the good of society without zero material incentives or consequences is futile. I believe you're saying that, and I agree.

But (by a reasonable understanding of "hard to find fault") you also appear to be saying that the people exploiting the loopholes in the faulty law are morally blameless, and that's nonsense. Humans are responsible for the consequences of their actions. It's naive to expect them to do the right thing, but that doesn't make them immune to criticism or judgment.

There are a number of problems with this accusation.

(1) The requirement is that the sulphur is not released into the air. This is the rule adopted by a standards body. Why exactly is it cheating to dump it into the ocean instead?

(2) It is unclear that this is a bad thing. The article only cited the danger of dumping the chemicals in a port, where concentrations could reach dangerous levels due to concentration. It is unclear that dumping in the open ocean would be bad

(3) The final charge is that the scrubber increases CO2 output. It is unclear how one should get around this. Obviously, any process that requires more energy releases more CO2. There is no data given as to whether open loop or closed loop scrubbers generate more CO2. I'm guessing both generate some more CO2. The fact of the matter is that the regulation as stated requires more CO2 to be produced. The regulations mandate extra energy use, so the extra greenhouse gases produced are directly due to the regulations, not the companies behind this.

In other words, the article is written as if to accuse the companies of breaking the law, but in reality, the companies are simply complying with the standards in a way the author does not like. Instead of calling for standards to be changed, the author is acting as if companies should magically know what to do. Standards bodies exist in order to create standards that companies can follow. They should be the ones implementing the rule change.

Indeed, the article explicitly mentions that the IMF explicitly allows these kinds of scrubbers. Thus, using them is not even air quotes cheating. It's actually fully compliant.

To the article's credit, they did point out that the standards body is indeed reviewing their rules, and should be able to figure something out in the coming months.

No magic necessary here. Companies know very well that releasing sulphur and heavy metals into the environment, regardless if air or water, is harmful. It was scientifically proven that heavy metals tend to concentrate in the food chain. They could switch to refined (low sulfur) oil tomorrow, that is not a technical problem.

But, as others explain, the ownership of shipping companies is structured to avoid any direct responsibility, so voluntary decision that goes against the inertia is hard, and regulation is difficult in international waters.

'Being bad to the environment' is not actually against the law, especially not in those terms. Perhaps you are confusing morality with law and trying to hold people liable for the former rather than the latter.

You on the other side, insinuate that asking companies to consider any moral obligations requires magic.

No, asking companies to consider moral obligations under penalty of law is what I think is wrong. The law exists to codify morality. If this is a moral concern, it should be against the law. We cannot expect disparate entities around the world, staffed by people with disparate values, to all magically think like an Anglophone Hacker News-type. In order to make expectations clear, morality that requires this level of behavioral modification ought to be law. In this regard, it has been turned into law, and whatever authorities we have have decided that this behavior is not illegal. Thus we conclude that the international maritime commission, which purportedly represents the will of the democratic countries of which it consists, does not believe this is immoral.

I'm reading your comment as "Companies ought to have no morals, except in cases where required by law, because there are no common morals" I'm going to take a couple assumption about your political stance and try to explain why I think this is false and also terrible policy.

1. You are libertarian, or lean extremely conservative. This is from your dislike of new laws in general => prior comment "Sure, all law is an exercise of authority, and hence authoritarianism. The commenter was merely calling out that... no matter how you dice it... a new law is always authoritarian, whether you acknowledge it or not."

2. You believe everything not strictly disallowed by the law should be allowed, and that unless the law says otherwise, it should be allowed. Libertus.

Generally, laws exist to protect public and individual good. This is true for both the Western and Eastern hemispheres. For example, punishment for murder, penalties for illegal dumping of chemicals. Individual rights and societal living standards are protected by ensuring one does not infringe upon the rights of others. However, it does not say what is "Good" or "Bad". This is why in addition to learning about basic societal law, parents teach their kids morals and norms. Cheating is bad, it is rude to interrupt others when talking, hospitality, gratitude. However none of these are codified into law. This is also historically found in all civilizations [-1]. When people break these norms, they are penalized by society.However companies, which simply are groups of people, will discard these norms to pursue profit because there is no significant penalty for ignoring norms and morals, nor laws which are frequently lobbied against or weaseled out of [0].

We can and should require companies to consider moral obligations because there is no way to codify directives such as "don't ruin the planet." Laws are generally written from the actions from the past. Monsanto knew for decades the effects of DDT, but they didn't do anything because there was no law requiring them to act. But should Monsanto have took initiative to act? Eventually, laws are enacted to combat abuse, but in many cases, the damage is already done. [1-3]

[-1] https://evolution-institute.org/the-seven-moral-rules-found-... [0] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/climate/trump-envir... [1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190426110601.h... [2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fracking-can-cont... [3] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/federal-study-...

> Companies ought to have no morals, except in cases where required by law, because there are no common morals

Actually, I'm Catholic, so I actually do believe there are absolute morals and that everyone, including corporations, ought to follow them. And moreover, even more strongly than most authoritarians, I believe that if you eschew these morals, you may end up experiencing eternal damnation (unless you get baptized and go to confession regularly, ya da ya da ya -- you know the drill). So your reading of me as a libertarian is really quite far from reality.

However, when it comes to asking whether a government should punish a company (and thus a person, because companies are fictitious), then yes, you must be able to codify your morality so that no one can claim they are being unfairly treated by an arbitrary imposition of your morality on them. A fundamental part of Catholic social teaching -- the same one that says you have to love your neighbor and take care of planet earth by not dumping chemicals -- is that governments have an obligation to promulgate and enforce just laws. Without proper promulgation (i.e., announcing the new law to the world and making reasonably sure all interested parties know its contents), a ruling cannot be held to have the power of law. It would be immoral in this case for a government to attempt enforcement, even if the purportedly immoral party has committed a clear wrong doing.

I see this in the same way I see the trolley problem. Although certainly the outcome of a trolley hurtling towards 100 people would be very bad and unfortunate, under no circumstances can a moral actor willingly choose to sacrifice fewer people to divert the trolley's course. If a government cannot morally enforce its law, it ought to do nothing (other than make a new law). As I said above (and which should have been the first hint that I am not really a bona fide libertarian), in this case, the maritime commission has a clear way out by simply remaking the law to cover this case of chemical dumping. If they believe this dumping is bad for the planet, then they have every right (and an obligation perhaps) to do this. That is not a libertarian statement.

As for the companies... they should not dump if they know it to be toxic (I am personally not 100% clear if it is or not -- the maritime commission seems to not know either), but they certainly cannot be punished for doing it even if it is, until such time as a proper authority has actually made it against the law. Up until that point, that is between them and God, and if they knowingly commit a sin and don't repent, they'll probably end up in a real bad place.

I guess the new law reads "Can't release sulphur into atmosphere", so the shipping companies were thinking of ways around that. Why not say "Can't release … into environment", which would cover air, sea, ground, space and everything else around us?

They definitely should dump it outside the environment:


There was need for a Snopes fact check for that? Strewth.

LOL does Snopes fact-check skits now?

Because people will take jokes as reality. See Storm Area 51.

In which case it should be labeled as a joke, not "false". And Snopes has a satire tag for this purpose.

They should fact-check Rickroll bait, too!

there should be a some kind of spirit of the law wording in addition i think.

Didn't read the article but I met a Danish fellow doing laser prop shaft alignment on Friday night in Shenzhen. He told me there are packed out waiting lists for the installation of these devices right around China right now. Until then, I'd never heard of them.

The solution is nuclear-powered ships.

It's hard enough to secure nuclear power plants. Now imagine a swimming one blew up (by accident, or deliberately) in some water highway, like the street of hormuz, and cause a traffic stop for weeks or even months.

Nine nuclear submarines have sunk so far. They did not release significant amounts of radiation. Sinking a reactor generally does not lead to compromise of the containment, singe pressures are higher in the reactor as compared to its surroundings. Sinking reduces the pressure gradient. One would probably have to puncture the reactor to experience a catastrophic event.


Like you said: The submarines sunk. The reactors did not blow up. Now think about what happens when one on a container ship actually blows up (e.g. because the ship was attacked to make it blow up), and also consider the different scale of a container ship to a nuclear sub, which of course means you need a different size reactor.

Probably the same thing as what happens when an aircraft carrier blows up. Actually, probably less violent because aircraft carriers are also carrying jet fuel and ordnance. And we send those into warzones, nobody seems to mind.

If Thorium reactors ever get completed... this won't be a problem.

There are between 60,000 and 80,000 commercial cargo vessels worldwide.

About 100-200 sink every decade.

Nuclear power as a routine matter in commercial shipping is unlikely to be widespread.

Hundreds of nuclear powered military vessels have been built. Several have sunk. There has been no environmental disaster so far, and there doesn't seem to be much concern over putting nuclear reactors on vessels that are likely to shot at and bombed. Nuclear powered merchant ships have been built, but mostly as a tech demonstration [1].

There will never be a solar or battery powered transoceanic cargo ship. The energy density is nowhere near that of hydrocarbons. There is some speculation about liquid hydrogen powered vessels, but at that point one could feasibly argue that nuclear is the safer option.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NS_Savannah

I am well aware.

It's really not tractable.


Wind is a proven solar-derived marine power system. Used commercially through the 1950s.

Wind doesn't move nearly as much cargo as compared to self-propelled craft. It's true that throughout the 18th and 19th century industrialized nations used wind power to move cargo, but I doubt people are going to be willing to revert to 18th and 19th century standards of living. Global commerce is built on cheap long distance transport, and any climate solution that involves eliminating or drastically reducing global commerce is a long winded way of saying "no solution".

I'm aware of that too.

Point remains: direct solar, or battery storage, won't work, at all. Power and energy to load are simply insufficient.

Wind can. Synfuels can. Wood pellets can. Scales and tech are manageable.

For canal traffic, electric mule traction can. Likewise electrified cable ferries, on limited routes.

Nuclear almost certainly won't. Yes, it's technically proven, but the risks, costs, social, and political hurdles are enormous.

The shifts will eventually not be willing.

Wind cannot power modern transoceanic shipping. Modern container ships are 10-100 times the size of sail powered transports. The throughput of wind powered shipping would be tiny.

Biofuels and synthetic fuels are still hydrocarbons - just carbon-neutral ways of producing hydrocarbons. But the amount of forest needed to power ocean going vessels with wood would be immense. I couldn't find global bunker fuel usage, but apparently the port of Singapore sells 50 million tons of bunker fuel each year [1]. Wood has about half the energy density as bunker fuel, so that translates to 100 million tons of wood fuel. Clearcut tree plantations yield 80-90 tons of wood per acre, let's call it 100 for simplicity [2]. So we would need one million acres of tree plantations clear-cut each year just to provide enough fuel for Singapore's fuel consumption. Trees grown for timber take between 25 to 60 years to grow until they are ready for cultivation [3]. So 25 to 60 million acres of tree plantations to provide enough fuel for Singapore. By comparison, Portugal is 23 million acres.

And this isn't even accounting for the fact that the lower energy density of wood fuels means ships will have to dedicate more space for fuel instead of cargo, thus lowering net efficiency.

1. https://blogs.platts.com/2019/07/29/imo-2020-an-opportunity-...

2. https://www.forest2market.com/blog/how-many-tons-of-wood-are...

3. https://www.arborday.org/programs/graphics/conservation-tree...

Wind cannot power modern transoceanic shipping.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. Stein's law.

You seem to think that the present state of affairs is preordained or eternal. It is not.

Today's shipping regime is an accident of current technologies, fuels, and environmental externalities. Future regimes will be shaped by their circumstances, constraints, economies, and values or awareness. They will be quite different from what exists now.

What specifically those will be, I don't know. That they will differ, I am certain.

There are a limited number of ways to power long-range marine shipping. The total energy requirements are such that wind or fuel-based systems are about the only likely candidates. Economies are such that these will likely continue. Compromises such as slower speeds (vastly more efficient) and hybrid power are quite likely. Ship sizes, s schedules, crewing, operations, and total shipping volume, as well as costs, will all but certainly change. These will have significant systemic effects on other activities. Total scale and efficiencies are such that biofuels, as part of a mix may well be part of the solution.

I've been following and writing on this space and developments for some time. You might care to run some keywords through the subreddit previously linked before your next response. A few relevant articles follow.

More on biofuels:

Prospects for biofuels: limited additional potential https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/28k1w5/prospec...

Boeing's Biofuel "Breakthrough" -- Less than overwhelming https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1wo2hl/boeings...

The intractable problem of biomass for fuels is HANNP / photosynthetic ceiling https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/2cvap7/the_int...


US Navy electricity-to-fuel synthesis, papers and press release https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/22k71x/us_navy...

Electrical Fuel Synthesis from Seawater: older than I'd thought https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/28nqoz/electri...

Energy storage generally:

Energy Storage Dispatch and Utilisation Regimes https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/72l4sd/energy_...

Yes, eventually the Earth will be swallowed by the sun, nothing lasts forever. The point remains, wind cannot power modern transoceanic shipping and neither can trees, deep phrases about the ephemerality of the world notwithstanding.

Hopefully the future regime will be constrained by a means of locomotion that can sustain global commerce such that we don't have to roll back standards of living by the better part of a century. We know this is possible to do with nuclear energy - nuclear maritime propulsion is a mature technology. But the stubborn rejection of nuclear power means that hydrocarbons are here to stay. Fuel synthesis is only feasible with huge amounts of energy. Maybe possible if terrestrial nuclear energy becomes popular, but that too seems like a slim prospect.

Timescales I'm considering are on the order of decades rather than billions or trillions of years.

You seem fixated on the status quo. Let go.

Again, if "letting go" entails reducing shipping by orders of magnitude, then that is not something society is going to accept. People would go to war before suffering the economic devastation that would bring. If people need to let go of something, let's start with the phobia of nuclear maritime propulsion.

Reality does not rely on society's acceptance or nonacceptance.

Society is a part of reality. What society will and will not accept is a limiting factor just like the limiting factor of energy density, hydrodynamic drag, etc. The reality is, society will keep burning fossil fuels until a cost effective substitute is provided.

I could turn around and say the same thing to you. Go take your proposal they were drastically cut international shipping and move containers with sailboats and biomass fuel to national leaders. You'll rapidly discover that reality disagrees with the feasibility of this solution.

Society doesn't enable the possible, it responds to the possible.

I'm not saying what you're discussing isn't a problem. But it's a separate problem.

Again, Stein's Law applies.

As Jeffrey Immelt of GE said, "We know the solution. But we don't like it."

The problem isn't with the answers or solutions.

What you've been arguing here is largely simply wishful thinking. "The consequences of some fact are too terrible to imagine, so we won't imagine them."

Shipping is a very under-regulated industry. Not just on environmental issues but also labor and human rights. Check out the book “Ninety Percent of Everything” by Rose George, all about the shipping industry.

Let’s hope more and more exposure hits the industry so we can stop polluting our oceans.

It’s not a “cheat” device. The law allows ship operators to use it and dump the sulfur into the ocean. Pure madness.

It's a cheat device in that it skirts the intent of a law: that sulfur not get into the environment at all but extracted and disposed of properly.

Maybe just have these ships run on Methanol. Seems like the obvious long term solution.


I wonder what Captain's Nemo story could have been today...

I was wondering what it would take to replace a current container ship by a sail boat, like a clipper. Apparently, each container ship has more or less a 100 times the tonnage of a clipper.

Independently of the speed of the ships, the cost of the crews would probably kill the idea, except for goods with a very high margin, but there must a fuel price (including carbon tax) where this should become economically viable again.

There are lots of experiments and even production ships with sails these days. Google for "sails on container ships" for lots of nice pictures and articles.

The sails don't look like historic sails - they are often rotors that look like cylinders.

Maersk's Pelican, for example, is supposed to get 10% from its rotor sails.

Tangent: why do wind turbines look so conventional, with their propellers? There is a lot online about vertical axis wind turbines etc, but I've never seen one.

I forget the details but vertical axis wind turbines are always less efficient than horizontal axis turbines. Off the top of my head I can't recall if the reason is that vertical axis turbines always have half of the rotor turning against the wind, but there is a basic reason I believe can be found on wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_axis_wind_turbine says

> research at Caltech has also shown that a carefully designed wind farm using VAWTs can have an output power ten times that of a HAWT wind farm of the same size


The cups on the normal wind speed sensor have less drag into the wind.

It would be easy to imagine a VAWT where a computer knew the wind direction and feathered the blades on the back sweep etc?

Interesting. I think I was wrong that the disadvantages I had seen before were easily found on Wikipedia. But I do see this quora post with bad things to say about VAWTs: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-pros-and-cons-of-vertical...

> Tangent: why do wind turbines look so conventional, with their propellers? There is a lot online about vertical axis wind turbines etc, but I've never seen one.

Not sure if they still exist but east of SF on 580 (Altamonte pass?) I think there are still some.

I don't think there are any left that are visible from the freeway. I remember them being touted as a newer more efficient design, I wonder why they have been replaced by more traditional designs?

The problem is exhaust and the waste pollutants in it. If you switch to sails for a 10% improvement, wouldn't that mean you are still producing 90% of the waste pollutants and pumping it into the environment?

Article from 2015: https://www.wired.com/2015/05/future-wind-turbines-no-blades

I guess they're still not feasible for some reason.

But maybe you don't need crews, and ships that big. Perhaps it would be viable to operate a semi-autonomous fleet of dozens or hundreds of medium-sized wind-powered ships; it's possible that wind turbines + battery + electric engine would be better than sail. A trimaran could accommodate wind turbines and a certain number of standard containers that would also act as ballast.

COLREGs probably prevent unmanned ships, but regulations can evolve if you can convince that there is an actual safety improvement (the ships could be coupled with satellites and flying drones to increase visibility/radar/tracking awareness).

The biggest question in regards to windpowered vessels is always "how do you deliver on time?". With logistics turning more to just in time deliveries to reduce warehousing a ship turning up a day late is not acceptable, which creates knock off issues with slot times in harbours not aligning and you either pay higher prices for later scheduling or having to pay for an unused slot.

This is not even taking into consideration the power requirements of chilled containers.

I'm all for making ships more efficient using wind, every percent is a win but the shipping industry is never going back to it as the main propulsion method.

The electric side is really interesting, it is viable in some cases today. I've done some napkin math about outfitting a traditional sailing ship I volunteer on with batteries from Corvus mentioned in another comment and it's completely viable today. Unless going for huge system needing a complete overhaul of the inside layout we would still need a generator for range above about 5-6 hours but that could run on carbon neutral HVO diesel.

Is there any resources regarding wind turbines as electricity generators for propulsion?

I imagine this could work pretty well, maybe even with headwind (?), owning to the different densities (and inertia) of water and air, as well as their relative velocities. Yet everyone I've told this to called me nuts, likening this to perpetual motion, etc.

I'd likely go with hydrogen storage for boats, especially if the system is reversible (though I've read it can be quite difficult to filter input water).

The idea is not perpetual motion as long as you're not trying to extract energy for propulsion directly from a head wind. You could, however, certainly use a wind turbine to store energy while not underway (e.g. while in port trabsferring cargo or at anchor) and then use that energy to propel against a headwind later. (I'm a marine engineer and work on ship propulsion system design, specifically WRT energy efficiency of propulsion systems.)

The challenge with a hybrid wind turbine-electric propulsion would be the energy efficiency losses from turbine generator through a power conversion (and probably storage) device and ultimately the propulsion motor. By the time you're finished, it probably would have been more practical to use some type of sail to harvest wind energy for propulsion directly with no losses. For a head wind, your wind turbine would be harvesting energy, but it would also be creating significant air drag which would be added to the total resistance of the vessel, so the sum total of propulsive power would be negative in a direct head wind scenario. Interstingly, the opposite is true for a tail wind - that is you'll be gaining thrust (like a sail) in addition to harvesting some of that energy. Again, though, because of the energy conversion losses, I think you'd probably get better propulsive efficiency if you just used a sail, which has no energy transmission losses.

I think the best case for wind turbines on ships is to use them for energy harvesting in port and in tail winds. I'm sure someone is doing this, but you need to balance the initial hardware investment and operational maintenance costs against the potential fuel savings in order to justify the installation.

There are a large quantity of energy harvesting/conserving technologies out there that are trying to take profit the IMO restrictions (which is a very good thing I think). The interesting thing is that global shipping is only a few percent (used to be 2%) of the worlds transportation carbon emissions, but it transports the most tonnage of any mode of transport. My point is that, while all of this focus on the shipping industry is necessary and very interesting to me personally, things like converting automobiles or airliner emission is much more of an environmental impact.

I think the problem is the efficiency, a wind turbine is limited to about 60% by Betz law[0] and most today seem to have 35-45% efficiency. Which means with all losses included I think it's hard to see a headwind helping, same with how the apparent wind shifts forward, which would make a weak stern wind not help anything and the turbine just be drag.

They are making trials with wind "turbines" using the magnus effect[1], they seem to save about 300 tons of fuel per year, but since the article doesn't include the ships yearly total amount it is hard to put it into a relation to anything. https://safety4sea.com/tests-from-rotor-sail-technology-on-v...

I think ships is one of the applications where hydrogren could be feasable. Batteries are hard when you have to have the range from China to Europe or NA without stops and the density of hydrogen could maybe solve that. Especially since compared to cars the distribution network is more easily centered around large harbours and routes which is already used to handling dangerous goods. Though the competition is going to be synthetic hydrocarbons and all they need are producers, the entire world is already devoted to transporting them.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_turbine [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnus_effect

> "how do you deliver on time?

With a big enough fleet you could statistically deal with delays. Eg, in the same sense that airlines slightly overbook flights. The variability/risk in the port costs would cut into the fuel savings; hard to imagine that would be a show stopper. There must be a portion of the industry that is less time sensitive and would entertain working out the details to facilitate the slower speeds for slower costs approach.

The issue is weather becomes a common-mode failure that affects your entire fleet regardless of size. A week or two of no/light wind, or winds that are too strong mean that everything is delayed.

Slower shipping may not be a problem, but unpredictability often is. Few businesses can handle completely unpredictable shipping timelines.

It wouldn't be "completely unpredictable".... pulling some numbers from a hat, let's say powered-ship takes 6 days, wind-ship takes 8-11 days. Depending on the severity of being late you would plan for perhaps 10 days. Or 12 days if missing your port slot is severe. You would be able to track the wind ship, so your window of arrival will narrow as the journey progresses. There must be a portion of the industry that will navigate this complexity in exchange for the fuel-free benefits.

The numbers I've delt with are much higher, powered-ship taking 30-40 days. In which case as slower ship increasing that by the same factor becomes 60-80 days.

Anyone read the "shipbreaker" novels by Paolo Bacigalupi. Good sci-fi that deals with this.

Now that are you talking about it, I probably got the idea unconsciously from "Tool of war", which is the 3rd book in Shipbreaker serie (haven't read the first 2 books)

You should read the first 2, it's a good series. Tool's character is different in the first two and not even really a main character in the first book.

Ships need to be big to go fast (or they need to plane but that's probably hard to do while carrying cargo).

Wouldn't this be the pirates' paradise?

Check out https://fairtransport.eu/, they've been doing that for over 10 years. The story of Captain Gustaf Erikson is also instructive in that regard: https://postcarbonlogistics.org/2019/06/28/captain-eriksons-...

Why don’t we pay ships for the pollutants they collect? Wouldn’t that motivate them to store it?

Because that would give them a reason to pollute even more.

What difference does it make if they collect it though? Yes, they'd claim a bit more but can't claim too much because the storage is limited to some extent. It'd still be better for the environment.

It is neither feasible nor practical to collect everything that comes out of a hydrocarbon-burning ship's exhaust. We have scrubbing for some of the worst stuff, but there's plenty of stuff that isn't collected.

When you burn fuel, you get a mix of those emissions. If burning fuel results in X amount of sulfur and Y amount of CO2, you still don't want to increase the amount of X, even if 100% of it is collected, because Y will also go up and it isn't being collected.

letter of the law solutions like this are outrageous

OT: what an amazingly unreadable web page on mobile. I’m using my work phone and have no blocker installed and this is horrible.

I'm reading it on Firefox Klar/Focus in reader mode, no plugins, and it looks great!

Bit of context on what they call IMO 2020 regulation.

TLDR: this is regulation that moves us towards a cleaner and more environmentally friendly industry, but it's a small step in a larger effort to make shipping environmentally friendly.

Couple of questions to answer: 1. What is IMO 2020, and what is the intent of the law? 2. How can shipping lines comply? And how is it enforced? 3. How disruptive is this for the industry? 4. Does this help us as a society?

1. IMO 2020 is regulation to reduce the amount of sulphur in the exhaust gasses of all vessels. It's a landmark achievement by an international organization (International Maritime Office) to ensure the world has signed up for this. 2. Shipping lines (and this includes all vessels) can comply in multiple ways (in order of use): 1. Use low sulphur diesel which is much more expensive than what they use now, 2. Install scrubbers (or what this article calls cheat devices) to scrub the sulphur out. There are 2 type of scrubbers: open and closed. The open one is called "cheating device" as it scrubs sulphur from the bunker, but dumps it via an open connector with sea water in sea. The closed one collects the sulphur so it can be safely disposed. It is questionable whether the open devices are net positive on the world, and different studies show different results. 3) use LNG. Most ports have indicated that they will only allow vessels that comply. Some countries, mostly developing nations, have already indicated that compliance is not needed, but all major ports on the East-West trades will comply and therefore it will impact most of cargo flows. 3. This will be very disruptive. There is now all of a sudden too much high sulphur bunker, and too little diesel. Price spread will increase rapidly when we approach January 1st 2020. Cargo will become more expensive. That said, refiners will benefit as well power generation in countries where they don't care about sulphur. Refiners will make more money on low sulphur diesel as diesel prices will go up (more demand), power generators in mostly developing nations will buy the sulphuric bunker to lower their fuel costs. 4. Yes, it does help. It’s a small step towards 2050, which is target for IMO to decarbonize the industry. This is an industry with long and large asset cycles, and change therefore is slow.

So: is the device cheating? No it’s perfectly allowed. Only a smaller share of all vessels will use, and most others will shift to low sulphur diesel. So it should be net positive for the world. This is how we look at it at Flexport.

When can we start imprisoning people for this sort of activity? It’s clear that fines are a non-functioning solution in a capitalist system as they are subject to cost-shifting to future leadership / shareholders / society.

Within our industry I’ve sat in entirely too many meetings where executives removed basic security investments from the roadmap over the objections of engineering. They understood the risks of doing so; they merely concluded that the personal consequences were both small and unlikely.

It seems to me that our current regulatory framework will remain untenable until enforcement has a very sobering deterrent effect.

You can imprison people when you make it against the law.

Blah that's hard and costs the rich some profits; lets talk about customers using plastic straws and eating beef instead! We have products we can sell them for that stuff!

A financial collapse is the only thing that will prevent an ecological collapse. World War 3 is the planets best hope.

Be careful what you wish for, this solution also includes the second American Civil War and assassination of high ranking government officials.

Gee, even as an American I'm kind of hoping for that with reckless abandon!

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